Ever wonder what it might be link to wander around the Middle East as a solo American traveler? This is what photographer Heather Finnecy did and she became one of 11 recipients of National Geographic’s “Traveler of the Year” in 2015.
How did it happen that you combined your photography expertise with travel in Middle East?
After graduating in photography in 2007 I worked in advertising and I realized that the staged photography isn’t real enough for me. I prefer photographing real life situations.
My travels in the Middle East began when a friend invited me on a trip to Israel where her father lived. She had lived in Jordan and suggested I visit it, before meeting her in Israel.
At first I thought, no way. I knew no one there. I thought about being tall and blond and I just had no context for what it would be like there. But my friend assured me it was safe. I decided to go.
Describe what your first impressions or first experiences were.
I arrived at night and took a taxi. I had printed a map to show the driver where my hotel was. But I quickly learned that they don’t read maps. He didn’t speak English and we drove around stopping to ask others. It was funny. Then in the morning I didn’t know what to order to eat. I didn’t know what Jordanians eat for breakfast.
I went out and wandered. I had decided to focus on photographing women. In the US we think, the Middle East, what a mess! We don’t think they want to have coffee and hang out with friends, but I felt this must happen. My question was, what’s it like to be regular citizen there?
To create relate-ability through your photos?
Yes, we become so accustomed to seeing women in the Middle East weeping over corpses that we stop seeing them as people who we can relate to because their experience is so other-worldly.
So what happened the first day walking around?
I walked by a shop where two girls were doing some art and I stopped and asked what they were doing. I’m actually an introvert but this push I gave myself to say Hello turned out to be significant. They told me they were opening a cafe. They spoke good English and they took me around and I met a lot of other people through them and I felt quickly at home. I trace so many relationships to that one Hello that I stopped and said.
Is there a difference between their hospitality and ours in the US?
When you travel somewhere unfamiliar you are more open to meeting people. And people are curious about you, which makes it easy to engage. And the Middle East has such a culture of hospitality.
When I was in Dubai in a cafe, I noticed a striking Emirati woman. It was not just her beauty but her presence. I watched as she met with a man, who then left and I was intrigued that she was independent enough to meet with him. I was about to leave and then I told myself to go over to her. I asked her if I could photograph her.
She’s now a best friend! This was a surprise. I didn’t expect to create lasting friendships.
Right after I met her, she went to Jordan to see for herself what was going on with the refugees there. She was frustrated that no one was helping. I connected her with a refugee friend I had in Amman and it snow-balled from there. She started a non-profit called Breathing Numbers which has brought relief to the refugees in Jordan in the form of medical aid, trauma counseling, housing clothes, food, blankets, etc. She started a social media campaign that single-handedly brought over 1,000 trailers to Zaatari Refugee camp to replace the terrible tents everyone was living in. I traveled with her back to the camp many times and ended up shooting photos and video for her to use for her non-profit.
The refugee crisis has escalated, does this compel you to go back?
Yes, I feel I want to get on a plane now and go there and document the situation.
What’s the main difference you feel you can make in documenting the situation through photography?
The crux of why I photograph is that it’s in me to document the things that people don’t understand. The things that people dismiss. And I find that when they’re going through trauma, it helps them to be listened to.
So you are not just photographing, you are finding opportunities to listen?
I spend a lot of time talking and listening, sometimes through a translator. I have to show I care about their lives, you know, that some chick from California cares. And sometimes I’m the first American they’ve met. If I can be kind and listen, as the first American they’ve met…
Yes, that’s been my philosophy too with travels. Tell me about your new project, Dare Not Go.
The more I spent time in places that Americans think are scary, and the more I found my interactions with the people to be normal; I became drawn to places that are considered “do not travel” by the State Department.
I want to show what daily life is like in countries that are on this “do not go” list.
The project will invite viewers to see these places through images, to make these places not a black hole, or not just images of war.
Are you encouraging travel to these places?
Not necessarily. Its like a “don’t do this at home.” I go knowing the risks.
Where will you display the photos?
This project will have its own site, so that it stands as its own body of work.
Of all the countries you visited, is there one that you would recommend without qualms to anyone, to visit?
Jordan. It’s incredibly friendly and it’s the only one in the near east that hasn’t fallen into chaos. Things have changed unfortunately in the last year with ISIS but Jordanians are used to tourists, the country has natural beauty, and the visitor can get a sense of a culture that’s very different, and still feel safe. The Gulf state are safe too but there isn’t as much native culture.
What’s your take away from all this?
I see this as a demarcation line in my life. My dream for a decade was to go to Afghanistan and meet the people and I never thought I would be able to do so, either logistically or in terms of courage. That was huge for me. I met so many amazing people over the course of my time in the Middle East and became so much more comfortable in my own skin as the result of wandering around by myself looking like an outsider. Somehow it let me accept all the unknowns of travel, all the confusion and unplanned things that happen. It’s also my favorite body of work that I have created. It will always be a very special time for me to remember and as those friends remain close to my heart, that part of the world will always hold my love.
Heather is a photographer based in California’s Bay Area and this year was a recipient of National Geographic’s Traveler of the Year award.